HC Deb 19 November 1996 vol 285 cc843-57 3.49 pm
The President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Ian Lang)

I would like to make a statement on the Green Paper on industrial action and trade unions, which I have published today.

Industrial relations in this country have improved beyond recognition since the Government were elected in 1979. In that year, almost 30 million working days were lost through industrial action. Last year, the figure was 415,000—down by more than 98 per cent. In 1994, we lost fewer days than in any calendar year since records began in 1891.

Our industrial relations record—once a music-hall joke—is now a major selling point for the country. Foreign investors appreciate the transformation. It helps to explain why the United Kingdom attracts more inward investment from outside the European Union than any other member state.

The Government's step-by-step reform of industrial relations law has played a significant part in that rehabilitation. It put an end to abuses such as the closed shop and the car park show of hands. It created a fairer balance in the workplace. It created a fairer balance, framed by law, between individual union members and their union's leaders.

The Government began this series of reforms with the Employment Act 1980. We built on that base carefully and after consultation, targeting specific problems in five further rounds of legislation. We have crafted a legal framework which is, on the whole, working very well. Each step along the way was fiercely opposed by Labour Members.

However, the events of this summer have reminded us of the damage and suffering that strikes can inflict. More working days were lost in the single month of August than during the whole of last year. Millions of people had their lives disrupted by strikes on the London underground and on the railways. Firms had their business disrupted by a succession of postal strikes.

Happily, many of the summer's disputes are settled or on the way to settlement, as they should always have been, by negotiation. However, there is a danger that bad examples will be followed. Today, most universities throughout the country are suffering from the effects of industrial action taken by eight different unions. In Scotland, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers is planning a five-day strike that will paralyse rail travel throughout Scotland from 26 November.

The Government will not stand by and watch the virus of crude strike action flare up again as it did this summer. Our people deserve protection both from excessive use of the strike weapon, which should always be only the weapon of last resort, and from the cynical use of the public as hostages in a dispute.

Our enormously successful privatisation programme has introduced competition in many areas, and we must seek to extend that. Strikes these days are largely concentrated in the public sector and in services where there is little or no competition and therefore little alternative for the public who depend on these services. More than 70 per cent. of all days lost through strikes occur in those areas, where the public sector or monopolies predominate, compared with around 10 per cent. in the 1970s. In those sectors, the scope for inflicting damage is great and the constraints minimal.

It is precisely because some strikes cause disproportionate disruption to the public that the Government must act to mitigate that damage. The proposals in the Green Paper are aimed to contain damage to the public caused by strikes of that kind, especially strikes where the public have no alternative.

I have concluded that a new approach is required—an approach which avoids the difficulty of defining in advance which services are essential. Instead, the Green Paper proposes that strikes should lose immunity if their effects are "disproportionate or excessive".

That is a reasonable and measured approach. It means that unions must think more carefully before embarking on industrial action. They will need to consider what effect their action might have on third parties. If they call strikes that threaten health or safety, or national security, or which cause serious damage to property, or which significantly disrupt everyday life or activities, they could lose their statutory immunity. In other words, the rights of innocent third parties—the public, businesses—will be brought into the equation.

I cannot see how anyone can argue that unions should have immunity from the law to cause such damage or disruption to those not directly involved in their disputes, but directly affected by their strike action. So, if a trade union calls, or threatens to call, action which has or is likely to have disproportionate or excessive effects, the workers' employer, and other businesses affected, could go to court to seek an injunction or interdict either to stop the union or, if necessary, to sue the union for damages. Moreover, anyone who is deprived of goods or services as a result of industrial action with disproportionate or excessive effects could apply for a court order to stop the union. The Commissioner for Protection Against Unlawful Industrial Action could assist such applicants.

I repeat that this is a measured proposal. Trade unions that behave responsibly and take the wider public and national interest into account have nothing to fear from it.

The Green Paper contains a number of other proposals to encourage the responsible conduct of industrial action. Strikes should be called only as a last resort. They should not be precipitate—adequate notice should be given to all concerned. That gives time for talks that might avert the strike altogether and gives those likely to be affected by a strike the time to make contingency preparations. At present, unions have to give seven days' notice of industrial action. The Green Paper proposes that the notice period should be increased to 14 days.

Strikes should be called only when the union's members have first voted clearly in support, in a secret ballot. The Green Paper proposes that, henceforth, at least half of those eligible to vote must support the proposed industrial action. Going on strike is a serious decision. It involves breaching contracts; it can have far-reaching effects on the livelihoods of both strikers and others; it can bankrupt firms or lead to factories being closed. So it is right that such action should have the support of a majority of all those who can participate in such a decision.

In addition, the initial ballot should not give a union an open-ended mandate for striking. Trade union members should be able to say from time to time whether they still support the action or whether they are prepared to return to work. The Green Paper therefore proposes that there should be a fresh ballot after two or three months, where action is continuous, or after a specified number of short strikes.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)


Mr. Lang

That fresh ballot will increase the democratic control of trade union members and force all unions to come up to the standards of good practice that some already follow. Opinions on the most appropriate time scales will be welcomed.

The Government have taken the opportunity of the Green Paper to review legislation other than that relating to industrial action. We conclude that most of it is working as intended and is as relevant today as when it was first enacted. In some other—relatively minor—areas, however, some changes should now be considered. The Green Paper suggests changes to remove the obligation on employers to provide certain facilities and information to recognised trade unions. Those matters, like much else in our system of industrial relations, should be left to management and unions to decide for themselves. There is no compelling reason why the law should intervene in that area. I am also suggesting some minor adjustments to remove anomalies in procedures for union elections.

The Green Paper is being issued initially as a basis for consultation. It discusses various options and explains why the Government favour some and not others. It invites views and suggestions. Each major step of our reform of industrial relations legislation has been preceded by consultation, which has ensured that measures have been well targeted and workable. I look forward to receiving constructive comments on the latest set of proposals.

In recent years, our industrial relations have been a remarkable success story. We must build on that success and not allow ourselves to fall back into the old, self-destructive ways. The Government's proposals are designed to ensure that the last vestiges of our irresponsible, strike-prone tradition are removed. They match the expectations of the public as we approach the beginning of the new century as well as the needs of our modern, successful and competitive economy. I commend them to the House.

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside)

The Green Paper is not worthy of the right hon. Gentleman. It does nothing to prevent or to resolve disputes. It is simply a lawyer's charter, an invitation to mischief makers and for political point scoring. It has more to do with the proximity of a general election than with improving industrial relations.

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House who is in favour of the proposals? Will he tell us whether any of his predecessors, from Lord Tebbit, who held the post from 1981 to 1983, through the following seven Secretaries of State, is in favour? Is the present Home Secretary, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer or the present Secretary of State for Education and Employment in favour of them? Is even the present Secretary of State for Defence in favour? None of them acted on the Green Paper of 1981 or the Tory party manifesto pledge of 1983. Will the President confirm that the Green Paper merely repeats those mantras?

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House which businesses or organisations representing business are in favour, from small businesses through to the Institute of Directors? Will he tell the House whether the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service or experts in industrial law support the measures? Will he tell us how using words such as "virus" is helpful to improving industrial relations? Is not the Green Paper calculated to inflame and to exacerbate rather than to heal?

What justification has the right hon. Gentleman for the changes he proposes to make in the balloting rules and procedures to deny people a simple majority? Is it not a fact that, on 1 November, on the Radio 4 "Today" programme, he said that he had got that proposal from his local golf club rules? Frankly, that is an insult to everyone engaged in industrial relations. Will he give the House an example of a dispute that would fall into the category of being disproportionate or excessive in effect? How would the courts rule on the effects of actions in a case in which, for instance, access to new technology changed entirely the impact, and therefore the effect, on an individual's companies or groups? Would the proposals help in any way if there were an increase in unofficial strikes?

Will the President tell the House under what circumstances he would have to send in the Official Solicitor to bail out again people who fell into the category of those who had to be imprisoned for refusing to obey an injunction under the Green Paper that he has published today? Does he really think that denying the people the right to time off as union representatives, or the information necessary to sit down and reach agreement with their employer, will help industrial relations in Britain in the late 1990s?

What can the right hon. Gentleman tell us about the role of the Commissioner for Protection Against Unlawful Industrial Action? Will he confirm this afternoon that £98,000 a year is spent on that commissioner; that £18,000, at the last count, was spent on a salary for a one-day-a-week post; that in 1995, the last year for which figures are available, only three cases were referred to the commissioner; and that in 1994 no cases were referred to the commissioner? Does he think that that is value for money, and does he intend to use that procedural mechanism under his Green Paper?

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that, while all of us believe that the life, safety or health of the individual or the nation as a whole are crucial and should be protected, they are definable and, under existing laws, they are achieved? But how would the definition significant disruption of everyday life or activities be defined on the face of the Bill? How on earth does the right hon. Gentleman think that we would be able to sort out such a mish-mash?

Is this not a Government attempt to sweep away the sensible measures of advice, conciliation, arbitration and mediation; an attempt in the lead-up to a general election to politicise relations which, by the Secretary of State's own admission, are currently better than they have been for many years? Is the statement not a prime example of a Government falling back into what he described this afternoon as "old, self-destructive ways"? This right-wing, dogmatic Government are determined to go backwards to a bygone era, rather than forwards to a new century. Enough is enough. It is time to give the people the real ballot they need, to get a new Government with a new vision for a new millennium.

Mr. Lang

At least the hon. Gentleman commented on industrial relations and strikes—unlike the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) who, when invited last July to condemn the strike on London Underground, said: I have nothing whatever to say.

Unfortunately, most of what the hon. Gentleman has said is wrong. He asked me who was in favour of the changes, and suggested that none of my colleagues is. I am happy to reassure him that all my colleagues in government support the changes, and are looking forward to the consultation process and the subsequent enactment of the proposals. He suggested that my predecessors might not be in favour, yet in his next breath suggested that all the proposals have appeared in earlier Green Papers. He is wrong—none of the proposals in the Government's package has been contained in previous Green Papers.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the proposals would make matters worse, but I suggest to him that they are fair, focused and reasonable, and give rights to the public. The proposals are shifting the balance against strikes and strikers as the weapons of first resort, and they will make sure that the unions will be bound in future to consider more carefully before going on strike the implications of their strikes and the effect that they will have on the public for fear of the loss of their immunity.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to consider proposals that would make matters worse, he should look at Labour's proposals—forcing employers to recognise trade unions for bargaining purposes, granting trade unions new legal protections for strikers, giving new powers to trade unions, encouraging—as the right hon. Member for Derby, South would do—a return to secondary picketing, and giving the trade unions a say in the Labour party's manifesto.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that this Green Paper is a pre-election gimmick, but Labour said that in 1979, when 30 million days were lost through strikes, in 1983 and 1987, when the figure was down to 7 million days lost, and in 1992, when the figure for days lost was down to about 500,000 a year. We believe that the measures are well considered and relevant, and will reduce industrial action in those public services where there is no alternative and on which the public depend.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the circumstances where lawyers might benefit, but we contemplate clear guidance on the criteria for what is disproportionate and excessive. I anticipate that, far from thousands suing trade unions, it is more likely that one will be granted an injunction to prevent a strike from happening. More to the point, trade union behaviour will change, and there will be fewer strikes as a result of the proposals.

The hon. Member asked about majorities, and pressed me to give an example. Under the Companies Acts, there are proposals that require a majority of those eligible to vote, so the proposal is well precedented. He suggests that it is our purpose to sweep away ACAS, but I can reassure him that the Government have no intention whatever to reduce or diminish the powers of ACAS. We believe that arbitration and conciliation are essential prerequisites to the resolution of industrial disputes, and are far more relevant to their resolution than the spontaneous industrial action that has become the norm in recent months in the public services.

We have heard evidence from the hon. Gentleman that Labour will always choose to side with the union leaders who bankroll the party, rather than the ordinary public when their interests are threatened. Labour has a shameful record on industrial relations—not just in office, but throughout its opposition to every measure that we have introduced to transform industrial relations in this country. This Green Paper contains a further package of proposals that are relevant and will continue that improvement.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Tory Back Benchers seem to be on strike—we have only the flying pickets.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

As a previous Secretary of State for Employment, I entirely support and welcome the Green Paper. Does not history show that every piece of legislation that has been introduced by the Government on industrial relations has been opposed by the Labour party, and that on every occasion it has been wrong? The people who would support the proposals are the public, who are entirely fed up with having their essential services, especially transport services, messed up as they have been over the past 12 months and in the preceding years.

Mr. Lang

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was noticeable that, when the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) asked which bodies supported the proposals, he did not ask whether commuters or consumers supported them, because he knows perfectly well that they do.

My right hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to the Labour party's record, both in government and in opposition; it has opposed at every step our improvements in industrial relations: secret ballots in place of car park meetings, the abolition of the closed shop, and getting rid of secondary picketing. It is clear that Labour would reintroduce trade union powers and begin to reverse our successes of recent years. We are determined to continue with our improvements, and the Green Paper offers a way in which to do that.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is not a time for statements; it is a time for brisk questions, and I hope that the Secretary of State will reply equally briskly.

Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)

Is not the fact that the proposals are in a Green Paper rather than in one of the political gimmick Bills that are flowing forth from other Departments evidence that not even a Conservative Government would really try to implement them? Would not the opportunity for vexatious litigation in which anyone could argue about the meanings of disproportionate and excessive simply amount to a charter for lawyers to make a fortune? Surely it would be better to promote no-strike deals, involving workers taking a reward in exchange for voluntarily giving up the right to strike. Is not this an example of the most blatant pre-election politics?

Mr. Lang

We are not contemplating taking away from workers the right to strike. The hon. Gentleman has clearly misunderstood the position. I have already answered the point about lawyers. If we had produced a White Paper or legislation, the Opposition would have been the first to complain that we had not first produced a Green Paper. We have produced a Green Paper before every industrial relations reform measure, in order to consult on it and proceed by consensus. The people who do not form part of that consensus are those in the Labour party, because they are in the pay of the trade union movement.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

May I first apologise to my right hon. Friend for being so eager to get in that I leaped up before I should have? Does he agree that the very fact that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) said that the proposals had been published with an election in view proves that he knows that they will be extremely popular? The Post Office strike has done more to undermine the public's belief in the Post Office than anything that anyone else could have done; it was a disaster that should never be repeated.

Mr. Lang

I welcome my hon. Friend's introductory remarks. She is right to say that, if we do not legislate before the general election, we shall have no hesitation whatever in inviting the electorate to endorse the proposals. The mail strike was one more example of how public monopoly services are the most prone to strikes these days; they now account for 70 per cent. of industrial action, whereas the figure was previously 10 per cent. That is a measure of how the private sector has come to its senses, and we must ensure that the public monopoly services do the same.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

Is it not ironic that the party that will not allow its members to elect either its chairman or its national executive committee is trying to introduce the most draconian conditions imposed on any trade union movement in Europe? Will the Secretary of State confirm that, if immunities are lifted from trade unions in the circumstances that he has outlined, it will take the trade union movement back to where it was before the 1906 Taff Vale judgment?

Mr. Lang

The trade union movement has made great advances in the past 17 years; at long last, it has a framework of law and a democratic base on which to conduct its affairs honourably and properly. As for the proposals being draconian, I should point out that Britain has much less protection than other countries against strikes in essential services; there are far more robust measures in Germany, Belgium, France and Japan than are proposed in the Green Paper.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that unions and their leaders and members have, in competitive industries, combined and co-operated with employers to bring in more inward investment and to raise productivity? Does he accept that it is right to concentrate on the monopoly industries? He seems to have found an elegant way forward in that respect.

May I warn my right hon. Friend that the words "at this time" in paragraph 3.6 of the Green Paper, the health and safety proposal, would be strongly opposed by employers and by many Conservatives, who believe that the right of union and employee representatives to information on health and safety issues is one of the reasons why our health and safety record is so much better than that of most other European countries?

Mr. Lang

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I look forward to the consultation process, which will no doubt yield comments on that point. He is right to focus on the importance of good industrial relations in attracting inward investment. It is surely no accident that, while strikes in the manufacturing sector have fallen by 99 per cent. since the Government came into office, productivity in that sector has increased by more than 70 per cent., and in consequence we have attracted more inward investment than any other country in the European Union.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

Is the Secretary of State aware of the report of Mr. Denis Tunnicliffe on the causes of the underground strike in the summer? One headline said: "Our mistakes led to strikes, say Tube chiefs". The report stated: Communication within the company is weak. In particular and at all levels, constructive discussion and resolution of relevant business, performance and behavioural issues is often either absent or ineffective. As a result, issues do not get adequately addressed and problems fester and grow.

How, then, can the public bring an action against management for disproportionate or excessive damage to their interest? Should not the Secretary of State consider proper penalties for employers who are not prepared to discuss matters with their employees or to recognise trade unions, and accept that their Victorian attitudes cause disproportionate damage to the long-suffering British public?

Mr. Lang

It sounds as though the hon. Gentleman is advancing an argument for privatisation. It has been most noticeable that the management of the public sector organisations has improved dramatically after privatisation. The hon. Gentleman asked about the public suing management. Management does not enjoy the civil immunities that trade unions enjoy. It is those civil immunities that are addressed by our proposal on disproportionate and excessive effects.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

As a growing number of welcome no-strike deals are being voluntarily entered into, will my right hon. Friend pay special attention in the consultation process to what should happen when trade union leaders persistently recommend no strike but unofficial action takes place? We need to get that right. Is the new commissioner not to intervene in a dispute until ACAS has exhausted its efforts for a settlement?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend's first point will certainly be taken into account in considering industrial relations matters. It is not addressed by the "disproportionate and excessive effects" proposal in the Green Paper, but should be further considered. The Commissioner for Protection Against Unlawful Industrial Action can provide assistance to an individual if unlawful action is likely to deprive that person of goods or services. He can help that individual to seek an injunction either to prevent the action or to get it called off.

In answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Brightside, which I omitted to answer in my initial response, the Commissioner for Protection Against Unlawful Industrial Action dealt with 684 inquiries in 1995–96. The commissioner is the same person as the Commissioner for the Rights of Trade Union Members, a statutory officer who has assisted, inter alia, the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) in her dispute with the Civil and Public Servants Association.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, while we must always try to balance the rights of employees and the interests of the community and of employers, there is a real danger that we could deny the legitimate expression of grievance? What protection does he propose to introduce to protect the legitimate rights of employees?

Mr. Lang

We have no proposals whatever to inhibit the legitimate expression of rights by employees. We propose that, when a union is contemplating industrial action, it will have to consider the effects of that action on the public. Too often in the past the public have been the innocent victims of industrial disputes. Now we are insisting that they are brought into the equation, and that they have rights that unions must take into account before deciding to embark on industrial action.

Mr. David Congdon (Croydon, North-East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that strikes are an outdated method of settling industrial disputes? Does he also agree that strikes in essential services such as those on the underground and in the Post Office are, in effect, a blackmail of the community, and are unacceptable to civilised society?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am sure that the view that he has expressed is held by the great majority of the British people.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is it not nothing short of sheer hypocrisy for the Government to send a Minister to the Dispatch Box to talk about the bravery of the firefighters in Kent, the train drivers and others in the public services who saved lives, and then, about half an hour later, another tinpot Minister attacks those very same people, because, very rarely, they have the audacity to tell their Tory bosses, "Enough is enough," and threaten industrial action?

Let me remind the Secretary of State that the last Tory Prime Minister who went to a general election on the question, "Who rules Britain?"—he has just left the Chamber—failed, of course, to win. People can see this for what it is—an election gimmick. If the Secretary of State wants to deal in a fair society, he should remember that it takes two to cause a strike. It is not just employees. On many occasions, bosses deliberately cause strikes, against the background of mass unemployment. The Government have encouraged that throughout their 17 years. Thank God they are on the way out.

Mr. Lang

I think that I heard the hon. Gentleman say that before the 1992 election, the 1987 election and the 1983 election. We shall see. As for putting people at risk, I wonder what his view is about the strike called by Derbyshire fire services against Labour-controlled Derbyshire county council. Our proposals would bring the public into the equation and give them the right to take action if they were put at risk as a result of the action of Derbyshire fire services.

Mr. Skinner

I was negotiating a settlement; I was ACAS.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

Was it not somewhat inconsistent of the Communication Workers Union to seek to punish the public by the withdrawal of their mail, having argued that the Post Office should not be privatised because it should remain a public service? Is there any relation between the fact that there have been strikes in the Post Office but not in British Telecom, and the fact that one is privatised and the other is not?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend makes a telling point. The introduction of competition and the breaking of monopolies is one way to undermine such attitudes that hold the public to ransom. Clearly we must do more on the privatisation front.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

As trade unionists are consumers and consumers may well be trade unionists, are we not unnecessarily polarising the issue? Is it not the case that people may be deprived of goods and services by industrial action that is proportionate and not excessive? Is it not a matter of judgment as to which actions may be excessive? Individuals will have different interpretations, which are bound to lead to a plethora of cases being brought before the courts. What steps does the Secretary of State intend to take to limit the number of cases that may be repetitive or vexatious?

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman is right—it is a matter of judgment. Individuals and organisations that seek to take action will need to judge whether they have suffered disproportionate or excessive effects. Before calling a strike, the trade unions will need to decide whether the effects of that strike on the public, industry or the community at large might be disproportionate or excessive.

We are setting out criteria in the Green Paper to give guidance on the matter. We are consulting on it, and we shall develop the proposals further. However, the underlying principle is clear: where disproportionate and excessive effects take place, the immunity of the trade union is, and rightly should be, forfeit.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the welcome that the Green Paper will get from London Underground commuters and the customers of the Post Office, who would say "sooner rather than later" of legislation? Does he remember how the strikes on the underground and in the postal service embarrassed the Leader of the Opposition this summer? Yet this afternoon, we have heard the authentic voice of old Labour.

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is right. We on Conservative Benches are the commuters' friend—the Labour party is the strikers' friend.

Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)

Is not the statement by the Secretary of State in complete contradiction to the remarks made by the Prime Minister during Question Time today? He was boasting about the tranquillity of the relationship with trade unions. The Secretary of State has contradicted those boasts about how well everything is going.

The Secretary of State mentions the days lost through strikes, but how about the days—a hundred times as many—lost through unemployment? What about cowboy employers—are they to have no responsibility? They are not included in the document. This announcement shows that this is a fag-end Government, who think that they are on to some sort of gimmick—but they will lose the general election.

Mr. Lang

It seems to have escaped the hon. Gentleman's notice that, for the past four years, while industrial action in this country has been reduced, unemployment has been falling. We are addressing the rise in industrial action in August this year and the preceding months, which reversed that trend, and in which action was focused on public sector services. That is where the public suffer most, and we are proposing this action so as to bring the public's rights into the equation.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

I give a wholehearted welcome to my right hon. Friend's statement and his Green Paper on behalf of the beleaguered commuters and small businesses of my constituency. When taking representations on his Green Paper, will he reflect on the fact that, if we had accepted at face value representations from people such as Labour Members and trade unions—who will no doubt beseige his office with all sorts of false representations—we would have got nowhere over the past 17 years, and would still be stuck with the awful industrial relations record we inherited from the last Labour Government?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All the industrial indicators point to the success of our industrial relations policy—improved productivity, attraction of huge inward investment, falling unemployment and all the other measures of industrial success. Unless we address the remaining specific problem of industrial action in the monopoly public sector industries, we shall continue to suffer from the growth and recovery in industrial action that will damage those successes.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Is there any strike that the Secretary of State would support?

Mr. Lang

I believe that strikes should be the weapon of last resort, not of first resort. Through a series of step-by-step proposals, this Government have achieved great things in industrial relations; we now intend to take another positive step in that direction.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

In the entire history of British industrial relations, can the right hon. Gentleman recall any occasion on which he found the management at fault?

Mr. Lang

The hon. Lady was clearly not listening to my earlier answer on that subject. Management does not enjoy immunity to civil lawsuits as trade unions do. It is open to anyone to take out a lawsuit against management if it is believed to be responsible. We are concerned with the fact that trade unions, while sheltering behind immunity from civil actions, make decisions that do not take proper account of the damage they inflict on the public.

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

Does the Secretary of State recall that it was Stanley Baldwin, a Conservative Prime Minister, who said in reference to the Taff Vale decision—the last time that immunity was removed from industrial action—that Conservatives need not complain about the class war, because they started it? Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that no one outside the House will be fooled by his talk of protecting innocent third parties, but will see his proposals for what they are—a naked class attack on the workers of this country?

Mr. Lang

I think that they will see the hon. Gentleman and his party as standing for the past, while industrial relations have made great strides forward in the past 17 years. I invite him to address the gains that have been achieved, not only for the country as a whole, but for trade union members themselves, as a result of the measures that we have introduced.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does not the truth in this trade union-bashing document lie at the top of page 17, where it is made clear that the Government are totally opposed to trade unionism? Is it any surprise that the Government want to return to the industrial climate of the years before 1906, with no immunities for trade unions, sweatshops, miserable wages and no effective protection for working people? It is not trade unions that are the enemy within in Britain today—it is this wretched Government, who are the dedicated enemy of every working person in this country.

Mr. Lang

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell me why we have a higher proportion of our working-age population in employment in this country than any other comparable country in Europe, and why they enjoy better living standards than ever they did under a Labour Government.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

A quiet question of fact: what legal advice has the Department had on how the courts would interpret the word "disproportionate"?

Mr. Lang

Advice within Government is, of course, private to Government, but we are confident that these proposals are workable and will be effective; that, given the criteria and the guidance that will be included in the legislation, they will work effectively; and that the courts will responsible positively to them.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Have we not seen another general election ploy here, whereby the Tories set out to clobber the unions and clobber the working people of this country? How many times have we heard from Conservative Members that they do not want the minimum wage or the 48-hour directive? They do not want anything—they do not want the workers to get anything at all. The Green Paper proves that all they want to do is to keep the working people of this country down at the bottom. Some Conservative Members could not live on what some of my members are making in my constituency. I would like to see some of the Ministers live a month on some of the wages that my constituents have to live on.

Mr. Lang

What we want is a successful, expanding economy, creating new, prosperous, well-paid jobs.

Mr. Campbell

You have not got one.

Mr. Lang

That is our record of achievement, and we are determined to uphold that record.

Mr. Campbell

We are a low-paid economy; that is what you have got.

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. He had an opportunity to put a question. I did not hear a question from him, as a matter of fact.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Who were the authors of this document? Paragraph 1.16 on page 6 claims that many strikes are called before negotiation and other means of resolving disputes have been fully explored. That is patently untrue.

Is it not the case that many strikes or industrial disputes are provoked by over-powerful and inefficient management, rather than militant trade union representatives? Was that not the case in the ScotRail disputes that the Secretary of State mentioned, and the Post Office dispute? Why, in the interests of balance, does he not seek to protect the interests and needs of employees against over-powerful employers?

Mr. Lang

In the private sector, the quality of employers and management has improved beyond recognition in recent years. As for the ScotRail dispute, 21 of the 22 train operating companies have reached a settlement on that dispute; only in ScotRail are the trade unions holding out and threatening to paralyse Scottish rail travel for five days in pursuit of an industrial dispute. I urge them to do what the other 21 companies have done—sit down and negotiate a settlement, and not put the public at risk.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

I thank the Secretary of State for taking me back about 10 years to a tedious international conference at which I heard the communist Minister of Labour in Poland explain why the Polish public had to be protected against democratic trade union action. Has he consulted the International Labour Organisation? At least one of his proposals will be in contravention of a convention that Britain has signed.

Mr. Lang

That is highly unlikely, but the consultation period runs for three months, and I look forward to receiving the hon. Gentleman's contribution.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

May I say that the Minister is going too far? These measures are an affront to liberty. They breach every fundamental principle of freedom of the individual, which many Conservative supporters in the country subscribe to. What he is doing today shows that he has completely misunderstood Conservative supporters in Britain, who feel very strongly on these issues—perhaps in a way that the right hon. Gentleman does not understand.

Mr. Lang

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not understand how strongly the public feel on these issues when they are left abandoned by trains whose drivers are on strike, or when they are unable to receive mail because the post is on strike. They too have rights, and those rights should be taken into account.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

Is it not reprehensible to make this further attempt to screw the trade unions, when wages are abysmally low and job insecurity is uppermost in people's mind? When will the Government realise that what is needed is not oppression and tyranny, but partnership and co-operation in industry? That is the way ahead for Britain.

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman talks about jobs and wages. Is he not aware that 150,000 new jobs in manufacturing alone have been created in the past three years? Is he not aware that wages at all levels are higher in real terms by a substantial margin than when his party was in power? There should indeed be partnership, but it should involve the public as well. They have a right to be considered in that partnership.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

What does the Minister consider trade unions to be about? Are they not supposed to be involved in negotiating on behalf of their members in various areas of interest? For that they need influence, in order to get their side heard. Their means of last resort, the strike, will be taken away from them in many cases.

Mr. Lang

Too often, what should be the means of last resort is becoming the means of first resort. We are concerned to make the strike the instrument of last resort and to make sure that other factors, such as the public interest, are taken more fully into the equation.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)

How can the Minister respond to a 99 per cent. fall in days lost through industrial action by complaining about excessive resort to the strike weapon? Surely the juxtaposition shows that that is simply election propaganda, rather than a proper industrial relations issue.

Mr. Lang

Clearly the hon. Gentleman did not hear me point out that strikes in public utility services, which constituted 10 per cent. of the total 10 years ago, now constitute 70 per cent. of the total. That is where the problem now exists, and that is why we are addressing it.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Has the Secretary of State not understood that there are many occasions when working people, through their trade unions, stand up for their rights? Those interests and rights are complementary to those of the public. Is it not a fact that, time and again, health and safety issues affecting workers, which have been pursued with vigour by trade unions, have meant that many accidents have been avoided in our public sector, and where those representations have been ignored, tragedies have come about?

Is it not a fact that the trade unions have been a force for good in promoting the interests not only of the workers but of the general public? Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that, and explain why it is good to have trade unions in some industries, but why he defends the right of some miserly, mean employers to exclude trade unions where it suits their selfish interests and not those of their competitors?

Mr. Lang

What a long and complicated question. Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that health and safety considerations are high on our list of priorities and constitute one of the criteria set out in the Green Paper that should be taken into account in assessing whether a strike is disproportionate or excessive. Strikes are far more likely to damage the health and safety of the public—and, indeed, of workers—than they are likely to advance it.

Mr. Blunkett

Perhaps the Secretary of State could answer one simple question. In view of our overall concern for the user and consumer of services, does the legal advice that he has taken suggest that the London Underground dispute this summer would have met the definition of "disproportionate" or "excessive" in terms of its effects?

Mr. Lang

If these proposals had been in place at that time, my guess is that that strike would not have taken place.